Education and Careers

Madrasa Education System in South Assam

By Bazlur Rahman Khan

South Assam is popularly known as Barak Valley named after the river Barak which flows across the region from east to the west. The valley consists of three districts, viz., Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi. Of them, the latter two districts have a Muslim majority while the first one has 40% Muslim population. The valley has a long history of Islam and Muslim life.

A large part of the valley (mainly Karimganj) came under the rule of the Turkish rulers of Bengal from the early 14th century. Karimganj continued to be ruled by the Afghans. The Mughals defeated the Afghans and annexed the territory to their empire. The dominance of Muslim elite finally ended with the advent of the British rule in Bengal. The inhabited portion of Cachar and Hailakandi was ruled by Tippera, Koches, and later by the Dimasas. In 1947 when plebiscite was held in Sylhet, Karimganj remained with India. The official language of the valley is Bengali while the majority of people speak Sylheti, a dialect of the Bengali.

The madrasa education in Barak Valley is very old. The first informal madrasa of the region was established in the early 14th century by Shah Ziauddin, a close disciple of Hazrat Shah Jalal, the famous Sufi of Bengal and Assam. It was built at Badarpur in the present Karimganj District. The main purpose of the madrasa was to train Muslims particularly newly-converted ones in Islamic principles. But unfortunately with the passage of time, the madrasa building and the adjacent Masjid disappeared due to the erosion of the river Barak. Similarly, during the rule of the Mughals these kind of madrasas were found there.

The modern madrasa system developed in Barak Valley immediately after the establishment of the Darul Uloom Deoband. In 1873, imitating Deoband, a similar madrasa was established in Karimganj. It was and is still known as Darul Uloom Baghbari. It is considered as the oldest madrasa of undivided Surma-Barak valley which included the present Sylhet division of Bangladesh. Twenty five years after the establishment of Darul Uloom Baghbari, Darul Uloom Bashkandi came into existence in 1897. Now it is the largest “Qaumi” madrasa of the North East India. It also shelters approximately five hundred orphan students from west Assam.

From the beginning of early 20th century, government-affiliated middle school (M.E.) madrasas and high madrasas were established across Assam. Batarashi Madrasa (built in 1924) situated in the suburb of Karimganj town is the oldest such madrasa in south Assam. Karimganj High Madrasa, established two years later is another very old institution of this kind. It has produced innumerable graduates, settled in different fields. These M.Es. and High Madrasas have been imparting general education mainly while religious education is given only to an extent.

Thus we see that from the early colonial times, various types of madrasas developed in Assam. The post-independent Assam witnessed the activities of the state govt. and community-based organizations. Different types of initiatives have so far been taken to streamline madrasa education in a better way. As part of the new policy, Assam State Madrasa Education Board was formed. Recently, for the smooth functioning of this body, a separate Directorate was created. Maulana Abdul Jalil Choudhury, a state legislature member from Indian National Congress, and a freedom fighter, took active part in the provincialisation of the large numbers of “Qaumi” madrasas. These madrasas are now categorised as 'Title', 'Senior' and 'Pre-Senior' madrasas. He even disassociated himself from the long-time bond of Jamiat Ulama-e Hind because of the latter's opposition to provincialisation of these madrasas. He formed a socio-religious outfit Nadwat-ut-Taamir based in North-East India.

Deorail Title Madrasa (Badarpur), Hailakandi Title Madrasa, Asimganj Title Madrasa are leading provinicalised madrasas of the valley. However, three large madrasas, viz., Darul Uloom Bashkandi and Baghbari, and Bhanga Sharif continue to function independently. Besides, Maktabs and Hafizia Madrasas (Quranic memorization institutions) have been established in South Assam since a long time.

Today, madrasas of south Assam can be divided broadly into two categories: Govt.-affiliated madrasas and non-Government or “Qaumi” madrasas. Government-run madrasas are mainly of two types- firstly the Middle English Madrasas and the High Madrasa; the former imparts education of the Middle School level while the latter offers education of the High School level. These schools-cum-madrasas have been functioning since the end of the first quarter of the 20th century. They mainly impart general education while religious subjects are taught in these institutions only in name. The second type of govt. madrasas are of the three-tier set up: Title Madrasas, Senior Madrasas and Pre-Senior Madrasas. As already mentioned, these institutions developed in the post-independence period. Religious education is the core of the curriculum in these madrasas while general education is given only partial importance.

The career growth of the M.Es. and High Madrasas is good, almost the same as of the High Schools. They have no problem in higher education and neither there is any special need to change their syllabus or course curriculum. Their problem is common to that of state-run schools.

Here it is important for us to discuss the provincialised madrasas such as Title, Senior and Pr-Senior. The total time required to achieve the highest degree in these madrasas is very long and the course curriculum is also outdated and not systematic. Pre-Senior is the primary one which can be compared to middle school. In this level Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, Assamese and Bengali are taught as subjects along with a little bit of Islamic subjects. After this level, students are promoted to the Senior Madrasa level which has a minimum of seven years study period. Faizul Maarif or F.M. is the final examination of the senior madrasas. F.M. is usually compared with the graduation level exam of general education. Guwahati

and Dibrugarh universities accept F.M. as a graduate level course and on the basis of it, one can secure admission in the M.A. Arabic programme of both these universities. However, Assam University which falls in south Assam does not consider F.M. as a graduate level course. Jamia Hamdard in Delhi allows F.M. as eligibile for its B.U.M.S. course.

Generally in Assam, F.M. degree is treated as a matriculation level exam. So F.M.-passed students who want to join degree level courses, first have to pass Higher Secondary examination from any government school/board. In this way, if any student wants to join any higher education course in general education system, he has to spend two more years after spending an additional four years in senior madrssas.

In senior level madrasa the major subjects taught are Arabic literature, which consists of prose, poetry, rhetoric, grammar; Quranic translation and interpretation; commentary of Hadith in addition to Islamic jurisprudence and logic. Arabic literature, which is taught in senior madrasas has a classical pattern that includes mostly pre-Islamic Arab culture and literary works. So even after spending ten years in Pre- and Senior levels, students of these madrasas are unable to write or speak modern Arabic language.

Title Madrasas have a minimum of two years course for Mumtazul Muhaddis (M.M.). The subjects of the M.M. course are Hadith, Tafsir and Tarikh (History). History which is taught in the M. M. course consists entirely of Islamic history. M.M. is considered equivalent to M.A. in the appointments in Senior Secondary School’s Arabic posts and Senior Madrasas teaching posts. However, the absence of specialisation in MM like MM in Tafsir or MM in Hadith, students obtaining MM degrees are less specialised. Most of the provincialised madrasas do not have boarding facilities for students.

Non-govt., or Qaumi, madrasas which are numerically much higher than the govt. madrasas are found everywhere in the valley, even in remote areas where government educational set up is almost non-existent. These madrasas are three types: Alimiya and Fazilat Madrasas, exclusive Hafizia Madrasas and mahalla-centric Maktabas. There are more than twenty Senior, Three Title and many Pre-Senior Madrasas functioning in the valley.

With this background one needs to examine the future prospect of the entire issue and may be lay down a possible action plan too. In Aliya and Fazil Madrasas, a series of Islamic subjects such as Quranic Commentry (Tafsir), Hadith (Prophet’s sayings), Islamic Jurisprudence (Muftiana), basics of Islamic History along with Urdu and Arabic are taught. These institutions do not have specialization unlike a madrasa such as Darul Uloom Deoband.

Darul Uloom Bashkandi or Darul Uloom Bhanga Sharif has been following the same age-old system of education. If one wants to get specialized in a field such as Islamic Jurisprudence, on completion of which students are awarded with Mufti degree, or for a specialised degree on Tafsir or Quranic interpretation, one has to go all the way to Darul Uloom Deoband.

My interaction with students revealed that students of those madrasas desperately want specialization in the above subjects in their own institutions. Many of them finish their education unspecialized because they think that they won’t be able to bear the expenses of studying in a distant place like U.P.

The official medium of teaching in these madrasas is Urdu which is not the mother tongue of any local student. It is ironical that they study Arabic language and literature through Urdu books whereas their teachers teach them in Sylheti Bangla (local dialect), and again their medium of examination is Urdu. This creates a complete mess in the over-all quality and vitality of teaching and the atmosphere of education. However, we know that Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, Hadiths were narrated in Arabic and the base of Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia was also written in Arabic. The timing needed to obtain the final degrees of this madrasas, Alimat and Fazilat, is very long. Students attain the age of around 25 years when they finally achieve these degrees. After that, if one wants to pursue general education, he has to take fresh admission in the lower classes in the general education. That makes higher education for a Qaumi madrasa student a far-fetched dream.  Many students who pass from these madrasas are immediately appointed in the same or similar madrasas without any sort of proper training in teaching. This ultimately results in a negative impact on the quality of education. These madrasas are run by community members through charity and donations. Students are also engaged in fund mobilization. Every year students spend more than fifteen days in fund collection.

Hafizia (memorisation of holy Quran) is imparted both in the Aliya and exclusive Hafizia madrasas. The exclusive Hafizia madrasas are those where only Quran memorisation course is conducted. Some of those Hafizia madrasas have now opened their doors to girl students also but classes are held completely separately in a different building. But in Qaumi and Senior madrasas, there is no room for girl students.

Maktab education provides the primary Islamic knowledge to Muslim children.

Due to the efforts of Nadwat-ut Taamir, Jamiat-e Ulema and of late Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, maktabas became an integral part of rural Muslims villages. These organisations try to shape the mindset of the children in their own narrow sectarian outlook. This is one of the major drawbacks of these madrasas. Urdu as a language is taught in maktabas but teaching and examinations are conducted in Bengali. Maktabas are usually attached with local masjids but many of them function separately. Children up to 12 years of age attend makatabas. The timing of the maktab is from 6 to 9 am. Some people feel that maktabs actually kill very precious time of students for if one spends his whole morning in the maktabs where is the time for full preparation of his general education? However, there is no gender constraint in these maktabs.

Most of these three kinds of Qaumi madrasas do not have recreation facilities. These madrasas do not even feel the necessity of physical exercise in the form of sports. Some of them even impose restrictions on some sports events. As a result, the physical and mental growth of students do not take place. The infrastructure or teaching equipment of most of the Qaumi madrasas is not sound.

Salaries of the teachers of these madrasas is very poor and negligible. As a result, good-quality teaching cannot be expected in these madrasas because teachers have to look for other options for a stable financial position, which obviously disturbs their concentration on teaching. Again, subjects like Mathematics, History or English are not part of the Qaumi madrasa education system. Lack of knowledge of these areas makes students of these madrasas ignorant about the day to day happenings in the world, and they remain incompetent in the present world as far as professional excellence is concerned.

Most of the students of these madrasas, especially in Qaumi ones, are from financially weak Muslim families, which is a common phenomenon across South Asia because most of the madrasas provide free lodging and food to their students. So poor parents feel it is convenient to send their children to Qaumi madrasas which at least can mitigate some burden from their shoulders.

But it is not money alone that pushes poor parents to admit their children into madrasas. Religiosity of people also pushes them towards madrasas. That is why a considerable number of students in reputed madrasas are found to be hailing from wealthy families.

According to recent statistics, the number of Muslim children going to madrasas is only four percent in the country. So some people think that it does not have much impact on the overall literacy of the Muslim community. They believe that the percentage of Muslim kids drop-out from schools is far higher than those going to madrasas. It is true that a majority of children neither go to schools nor madrasas. But one should forget that the madrasa graduates have immense influence in the Muslim community. Their positive role is very crucial both for the construction of the community and the nation. Therefore, a proper analysis of the loopholes and drawbacks of madrasa education is crucial for the future of the Muslim community in particular and the nation or society in general.

Every year students who pass out from different madrasas after getting the highest degrees like Alimiat, M.M., etc have very few opportunities to adjust themselves in the present competitive world. Most of them have to either settle in a local masjid as Imam or teacher in a madrasa. Only few students dare to enter independent business endeavours. A majority of the madrasa pass-outs, particularly from Qaumi madrasas, discourage people from admitting their children in general schools; rather they encourage them to opt madrasa education for their children. Some of them open new madrasas both for their own livelihood and expansion of theological knowledge among Muslims.

Except a few, large chunks of those madrasa pass-outs also oppose women education. Though female literacy of the Muslim community of south Assam is not bad compared to other places but it is not good or up to the mark in comparison with the Hindu community. The madrasa graduates’ words of advice and charity deeds are respected by common Muslim because at the end of the day common Muslims respect the decisions of Ulama for the fear of Herafter. S

outh Assam has a large number of financially stable Muslim population but most them are very loyal to the advices of Ulama and imams. So they donate more and more to the madrasas for the benefit in the Hereafter. Generally, rich Muslims think donation to schools and colleges is simply a social work and it has nothing to do with Islam. So they are neither very enthusiastic to popularise general education nor very kind towards donation to schools and colleges. That is why the number of institutions runs by the Muslim community for general education is very low.

If we channelise or systemize the existing large resources available in the shape of madrasas we will not only serve the cause of the Muslim families but also the whole humanity. A madrasas is found in every four to five kilometers or less than that in south Assam. If Government agencies and NGOs convince madrasa management bodies for the utilization of their infrastructures like buildings for vocational training of madrasa students and peripheral community members, benefits will accrue to the whole region.

After long discussions with community members, intellectuals and students, following are some more steps required for the improvement of madrasa education and its effectivenss, especially in south Assam or Barak Valley.

- A state-level council for educational research and training on the pattern of NCERT is necessary. Eminent Muslim and non-Muslim academicians, senior and experienced prominent Madrasa teachers can be taken as members of the Council. The Council should write and translate books mentioned in the syllabus and publish them. It should also decide the length of the syllabus at least for the government madrasas and give advice to the state for necessary steps for the enhancement of madrasa education.

- Separate teachers training colleges -- at least a couple of ones -- should be established in the state for madrasa teachers. These colleges should conduct B.Ed or E.T.E. degrees for the teachers of Senior, Title, and if possible Qaumi madrasas. These degrees should be made necessary eligibility criterion for the appointment of madrasa teachers.

- Arabic or the mother tongue language should be made the compulsory medium of instruction in the provincialised madrasas. Qaumi madrasas should be advised to make Arabic or mother tongue as the medium of instruction. Emphasis should be properly given to only those literatures in Arabic that are required for understanding Holy Quran and Hadith and. special focus should be laid on the learning of modern communicative Arabic. The contents of the syllabus of Arabic language needs urgent reconsideration at least for the provincialised madrasas.

- A Central Madrasa Board in the pattern of C.B.S.E is required for the proper conduct of examinations and smooth functioning of madrasas. Different types of vocational and professional courses should be introduced at the initiative of central and state governments in the provincialised and community-run madrasas to avoid increasing numbers of unemployment among madrasa students. Assam state government should at least take interest in launching Pre-Tibbia courses in selected madrasas so that madrasa students become eligible for direct admission to medical courses like B.U.M.S. and so on.

- In this era of latest technology, modern teaching instruments/electronic equipment which make teaching easier and understandable for students should be granted to madrasas. The Government, NGOs, and the madrasa management committees should organize vocational training for existing teachers on different vocational and life skill education.

- At least one counseling and guidance centre for madrasa students should open in each district at the initiative of the community and government agencies. Counsellors of these centres can communicate different options available to madrasa students. Names of madrasa pass-outs should also be maintained in the district level employment exchange.

- Since Qaumi madrasas are run by different Muslim organisations with different interests, a coordination committee should be set up to maintain good relationship between these madrasas.

Finally, for the encouragement of students belonging to the provincialised madrasas, the state government should distribute computers among students like government school students and teachers should be immediately appointed against all vacant positions in the provincialised madrasas.

Bibliography Qasimi Muahammad Sajid, Madrasa Education Framework, Manak Publication, New Delhi, 2005
Taimizi, Yahya, Sufi Movement in Eastern India, Idara-i-Ada-Biyat-i-Delhi, Delhi, 1992
Anurupa Biswas, Prasanga: Barak Upatyakar Shikka Bistar, Bijith Choudhury edited
Shatavdir Thatyapunji, Published by Barak Upathyaka Banga Shahitya-O-Sanskiti Sammelan, Silchar, 1998. Report on National Conference-cum-Workshop on Madrasas for Modernization in Northeast India organized by British High Commission, New Delhi and PFI Foundation, Assam, 28-30 March, 2007, Guwahati. Bitarka Madrasa Shikkar Upar, Dainik Jugashanka, 2nd March 2008, Silchar, Assam Call to make madrasas more competitive, The Assam Tribune, March 31, 2007, Guwahati
Qaumi Madrasasr Adunikaranar Bare Sarkarar Action Plan, Dainik Janashadaran, 31st March, 2007, Guwahati. Madrasa Shikka Bebasthay Shamaje Kuno Upakar Hachchena, Dainik Jugashanka, 9th March 2008, Silchar

Bazlur Rahman Khan is Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and may be reached at bazlurkhan[at]